THE POSTAL ORDER AGAIN
MARK TWAIN ANSWERS MR. KEY'S PRIVATE SECRETARY
THE POSTMASTER-GENERAL'S "UNNECESSARY APPENDAGE" INSTRUCTED IN HIS DUTIES AND PRIVILEGES.
To the Editor of the Hartford Courant:
A day or two ago I received a formidable envelope from Washington inclosing a letter and some printed matter. This envelope had certain peculiarities about it. For instance, in its right-hand upper corner an oval black stamp was printed, bearing the words, "United States Postal Service;" in the upper left-hand corner the following words were printed in large, bold type, in three separate lines, thus:
Post Office Department,
Office of the Postmaster-General
In the lower left-hand corner was printed the following words, in two separate lines, thus:
A penalty of $300 is fixed by law for using this envelope for other than
In this majestic envelope I found the following, among other things:
POST OFFICE DEPARTMENT,
WASHINGTON, D. C., Nov. 30, 1879
S. M. Clemens, Esq., Hartford, Conn.:
DEAR SIR: Noticing your letter to the Hartford Courant upon the recent order of the Postmaster-General, I take the liberty of inclosing a few copies of a tract which the department has prepared in order to meet such hardened cases as yours. After reading the tract and the inclosing clipping from the Cincinnati Enquirer, which latter I wish you would return to me, as it is the only copy I have, you will see that the "unnecessary labor" of which you complain was really as unnecessary as the complaint, the only utility of which was to add to the already surplus stock of misinformation in the world, and to enable some needy compositors to increase their strings by several thousand, which latter end might have been just as well attained by the use of bogus.
I send you by this mail a copy of the Postal laws and regulations, to explain the allusions in the tract, and hope you will take the trouble to look into the matter thoroughly. The department is a unit in regarding the order as the greatest step toward perfecting postal service that has been taken for years, and its officers are confident that when the public understand it they will sustain it. Yours truly,
THOMAS B. KIRBY
Private Secretary to the Postmaster-General.
[Mark Twain's response]
MY CALLOW FRIEND: When you shall have outgrown the effervescences of youth and acquired a bit of worldly experience, you will cease to make mistakes like that. That is to say, you will refrain from meddling in matters which do not concern you; you will recognize the simple wisdom of confining yourself strictly to your own business. There are persons who would resent this innocent piece of impertinence of yours, and say harsh things to you about it; but fortunately for you, I am not that sort of person. Whatever else I may lack, I have a good heart. Therefore, in a humane and gentle spirit, I will try to set you right upon certain small points - not to hurt you, but to do you good. You seem to think you have been called to account. This is a grave error. It is the Post Office Department of the United States of America which has been called to account. There is a difference here which you have overlooked; I will point it out. You are not the Post Office Department, but only an irresponsible, inexpensive, and unnecessary appendage to it. Grave, elderly men, public instructors, like me, do not call private secretaries to account. Bear this in mind; it will be a help to you. The mistake you have made is simple - you have imagined yourself the dog, whereas you are the tail: You have endeavored to wag the dog; this was not judicious. You should have hung quiescent until the dog wagged you. If I stepped on this tail - and we will grant for the sake of argument that I did - it was not to call the tail's attention to anything, but only to direct the attention of the main body of the animal to a certain matter. You perceive it was simply in the nature of ringing a bell, that is all; my business was not with the bell itself, but with the owner of it. A bell is a useful thing, in a measure, but it should not keep on ringing when one is done with it. Do I make myself partially understood? Lest there be any doubt, let me illustrate further - by parable; for the parable is the simplest and surest vehicle for conveying information to the immature mind. You seem to have gathered the impression, somehow, that you are a member of the Cabinet. Your chief is one of the guns of that battery, but you are not. You are not the gun or the load, or even the ram-rod; neither do you supply the ammunition. You only do up the cartridge, and serve as a fire-stick to touch it off. You are not the barrel of molasses; you are only the faucet through which molasses is discharged. You are not the boot, but the boot-jack; that is to say, you do not furnish the idea, you only pull it off. You are not the lightning, but only the lightning-rod. do you perceive? The thing I am trying to convey to you is, that it does not become you to assume functions which do not belong to you. You may think it strange that I am closing this note without saying anything upon the matter which you have broached. Overlook that, drop it out of your mind - we do not disturb the repose of private secretaries with affairs with which they have nothing to do. The newspaper slip which you have inclosed to me will be returned to you by one of my private secretaries. I keep 11 of those things - not for use, but display. Although I cannot consent to talk public business with you, a benevolent impulse moves me to call your attention to a matter which is of quite serious importance to you as an individual. You, an unofficial private citizen, have written me an entirely personal and unofficial letter, which you have had the temerity to inclose to me in a department envelope bearing upon its surface in clear print this plain and unmistakable warning: "A penalty of $300 is fixed by law for using this envelope for other than official business." The servants of the Government's officers ought to be, for simple decency's sake among the last to break its laws. You have committed a serious offense - an offense which has none of the elements of a joke about it - and only plain and simple treachery to his duty on the part of your superior can save you from the penalty involved. The kindly and almost affectionate spirit which I have shown you is sufficient evidence that I do not wish you any harm, but, indeed, the reverse. So, if that treachery shall intervene to shelter you, I shall not be sorry - as far as you individually are concerned - but I should be unfaithful to my citizenship if I did not at the same time feel something of a pang to see a law of the land coolly ignored and degraded by one of the very highest officers of the Government. As far as I am concerned you are safe, unless you intrude upon me again, in which case I may be tempted to bring you before the courts myself for the violation of that law. There, now, receive my blessing. Go, and do not mix into other people's affairs any more. Otherwise, you may pick up somebody who will feed disagreeable words to you instead of sugar.
THE PRIVATE SECRETARY RETORTS.
To the Editor of the Hartford Evening Post:
SIR: My attention has been called to a letter in the Courant of Dec. 9, signed "Mark Twain," and apparently intended for me, although Mr. Twain has not as yet had the courtesy to direct one of his eleven private secretaries to send me a copy thereof, so that I should never have known of this letter but for the kindness of some friends. The experience of others during some 10 years that I owned an edited a country daily satisfied me that a correspondent who attempted to correct an editor in his own paper had mistaken his calling, and as Mr. Twain is evidently sadly in need of correction, I must ask your indulgence for the following:
WASHINGTON, D.C., Dec. 11, 1879.
Mark Twain, Esq.:
AGED AND RESPECTED SIR: I don't know that I quite grasp the meaning of your letter in the Courant of the 9th inst.; there is such a wealth of illustration in it that one almost loses sight of the matter intended to be illustrated in his admiration of the beauty of the illustrations; but as near as I can make it out you seem to be under the impression that I felt aggrieved, trod upon, sat down upon, pulled, or otherwise misused, either personally, or as an "irresponsible, inexpensive, and unnecessary appendage" to the Post Office Department, by your letter to which my communication referred.
Now, right there is where you make a very serious mistake. There was nothing in your first letter personal to myself, and its misrepresentations of the regulations of the Post Office Department were in themselves no more worthy of notice than those of a hundred irresponsible, ignorant, and unknown newspaper writers, whose marked effusions are daily sent to the department by their misguided readers. So far as the order of the Postmaster-General and the regulations of the department are concerned, they need no defense, because any man who has sense enough to comprehend them, sees at a glance that they are right, and the officers of the department have no time to waste in correcting the misinformation concerning them so sedulously disseminated by many of the common run of newspaper men.
Nothing in the world could have induced me or anybody connected with the postal service to notice your letter had it appeared as an editorial in the Barkhamsted Bugle of Freedom, from which I thought it had been extracted by the editor of the paper in which I found it, until I came to the signature; but when I saw the signature, I said to myself: "Now, here is another good man gone wrong, grievously wrong. Here is man that I have been looking up to for years as my guide, philosopher, and friend, a man whose fame covers the hemispheres, as the inventor of a scrap-book, the inauguration of the movement to erect a monument to Adam, and the only man who ever dared to speak irreverently of members of the Boston Mutual Admiration Society in the presence of a meeting of that society, and this man has been writing about a matter of which he is so utterly and hopelessly ignorant that he thinks he knows all about it."
"It won't do, " said I to myself, "to let such a man as this continue to languish in darkness and reflect the same upon his neighbors." So, out of pure benevolence, I sent you the documents, believing that when you had been furnished the evidence that you were all wrong, and had been so from the beginning, you would not retract, for that would be fatal, but that you would, at least, say that the department had receded from the position in which you had placed it, and that it was at any rate, according to your latest advices, not exactly the imbecile institution which you had represented it to be.
I am glad to see that I was not disappointed, but I am a little surprised to find you laying the responsibility of your former ignorance upon the department.
Still, I don't know that I can blame you either for that or for the (to me) somewhat personal preface to your recantation. In an ordinary man it would be regarded as natural, but I had somehow thought better things of you. You see I supposed, as a matter of course, when you killed your conscience you had also made away with your sensitiveness. To a professional humorist, a man who makes his living by prodding other people, a thin skin is even more inconvenient than a conscience, and I had not the slightest idea that you would get mad at a little thing like my letter. I can only say, by way of palliation, that if I have done anything for you to be sorry for, I am glad of it.
In conclusion, permit me to suggest that if you will kindly stir up that particular one of your 11 private secretaries, whose duty it is to return that newspaper clipping I sent you, you will greatly oblige. Yours truly,
THOMAS B. KIRBY.
Return to The New York Times
Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search